Several of you have asked for my take on that weighty and intimidating subject, “How to Approach a Gallery”. So here goes:

  1. Have a name like Jackson Pollock, Georgia O’Keefe, or Howard Terpning.
    Most of the 6 billion of us (give or take) on this planet don’t, so: what distinguishes your art? what sets it apart? craft, technique, subject? What is your 30-second “elevator pitch” about your work? (mine is “painting today’s Wild West – wildlife, horses, rodeo – with a contemporary flair”)
  2. Have a professional set of business materials
    …including website (required!), bio, business cards, email address (skip the “cutekatz@hotmail.com” sort of thing), and a portfolio (see next)
  3. Have a deep portfolio
    …meaning, at least 10 to 20 images that are outstanding and representative of your work and style. These can be on your website, but must be well-presented (professionally photographed, cropped, and edited) and ready to email or print out. I use Photoshop day in and day out to prepare my images for web, emailing, CD/exhibition, and print. I also have a setup to photograph my paintings myself (a subject for another blog post!), and I take them to a pro when I want super high-res (eg, 100 MB) photos shot with a large-format digital back. (These are necessary for licensing use, and high-res digital backs cost thou$and$).
  4. Have a ‘gallery attack plan’
    Which galleries are you going to submit to? Why?
    Have you visited them?
    Will your work (a) fit and (b) complement what is already there? Can you articulate this?
    Have you called to ask for their submission protocol?
  5. Consider ‘networking’ into a gallery
    Do you know artists who already show there?
    Do you have collectors who patronize the gallery who can speak on your behalf?

OK, so this is an incredibly superficial look at approaching a gallery. There are plenty of books that deal with this in necessary depth (Cay Lang’s “Taking the Leap” comes to mind) and I heartily recommend you utilize those.

For those who wanted to know how I go about doing it…it’s confession time: all the galleries I’m in called me first. My dealers saw my work in magazines or at exhibitions and followed up. I owe a lot of this to the exposure I received from being in the Arts for the Parks Top 100 four times, and I admit to sadness that AFTP is no more – it was a great venue for unknown artists (yours truly).

Once you get into a gallery or two, it becomes easier to approach other galleries: you have credibility (hopefully) from having dealt with your existing galleries in a professional manner and with integrity. (Hot tip: never, EVER do an end-run around a gallery. In my workshops, I tell stories I’ve heard from dealers about this. They find out).

My most recent gallery switch came when the gallery I was with in a certain town clearly was not enamored of the direction my work was going. I considered my other options in that town – a location I wanted very much to remain in – and decided Gallery A might be a good fit. I know artists who show there, talked to them about joining Gallery A, and one of those artists (a well-known and superb painter) even ‘greased the skids’ with Gallery A’s dealer for me. Before I approached Gallery A, however, I called up a collector of mine who had also done a dynamite job selling my work in a short stint with a Whitefish gallery, and asked for his recommendations on approaching Gallery A. He listened to my story, gave me excellent advice, then asked me to hold off on approaching Gallery A.

Two weeks later he called to offer me a chance to show with Gallery B – a gallery I’d dreamed of being with for years! This collector of mine was the new manager at Gallery B and wanted me there (but couldn’t tell me until it was announced publicly…though I had an inkling). So I ended up not going with Gallery A…but would recommend a similar approach to any gallery.

And finally (kudos if you’ve actually read this far!) … not everyone’s work / style fits the ‘gallery model’. Be honest about yours. Would it do better if you sold it yourself at art fairs and festivals? or if you licensed or self-licensed it on clothing or cards? or via direct sales from a website, friends, family? The digital age offers us far more opportunities to sell our work than existed even 10 years ago – use them!

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7 Responses to “Approaching An Art Gallery”
  1. Shawn Meisl says:

    Uh, Jules…about the “have a gallery attack plan” phrase…seems a mite violent ;)

    (Gotta wonder why you gave your blog out to admiring friends, eh)

    sign me,
    tweaked funny bone (Shawn)

  2. Susan Fox says:

    Great post! One of the major things on my “to do” list this winter is to put together and send packets to my “hit list” of galleries that I think would be a good fit. The info I got in your workshop has been very helpful as I’ve kicked my marketing plan into action in the past two years. Oh….marketing plans……how ’bout blogging on that? Having one has made a huge difference for me.

    Got a hour or so ride on a real Mongolian horse (Chinggis Khan’s Horde and all that) with a modified Mongolian saddle day before yesterday. I think that it will improve any paintings I do of Mongolian horsemen and women. Have you tried any of the horse events that you are painting these days, like roping or barrel racing? Or are the visuals so strong that you don’t think it would make a difference?

  3. larry jewett says:

    I approached a gallery once after i took Julie’s workshop a few years back and, quite frankly, was so turned off by the whole thing that i have not approached one since. The gallery owner did not even want to see my slides until I gave them an “art resume”. When i told them I had none, they essentially told me “thanks but no thanks”.

    This was not a big time gallery in NY City, mind you, but a no name one in Podunk (the small town where I live). Good grief. What a bunch of nonsense.

    I’m not a professional artist so it’s really not important, but if that’s the way galleries operate in general, I’d have to say “thanks but no thanks.”

    Personally, I would hope that the internet will eventually allow artists to sell their work without the middle man. I realize that attitude would not make me popular with the galleries, but I think it is absurd that a gallery should be getting upwards of 60% of the sale price on an artist’s efforts.

    It really makes no sense now that people can view — and buy — an artist’s work over the internet.

  4. Tania says:

    Thanks Julie!
    A “30-second elevator pitch” is something I never would have thought of – but when you say it, I think, “duh!” And I tend to over-think things, which makes me a poor quick-on-her-feet speaker. Having a “spiel” would make that a lot easier.
    And I just got a copy of “Taking the Leap” so this is very timely, too :-)

  5. Julie Chapman says:

    Tania – I’m glad this has been of some use! Cay’s book is fabulous and will get you thinking about your whole art career more effectively from a business perspective. (Art IS a business – nothing wrong with those two words together!).

    Larry, I wanted to comment on your post of 9/13…if you look at it from the gallery’s point of view, they want to invest in artists who are committed to their careers. As a business-person, would you want to spend a lot of time working with and promoting someone who is approaching his art very casually? Galleries only have so much time and resources to go around, and they want to spend it on artists who are committed to their art, to growth in their work, and to partnering with their galleries. A lack of resume implies that you’re not serious about your art (and I can’t say whether you are, but not having business basics such as this in hand doesn’t help). Cay Lang addresses this in her book, including how to handle what goes on your resume (bio) at the beginning of your art career.

  6. larry jewett says:

    A lack of resume implies that you’re not serious about your art

    I don’t see what not having an fine arts degree has to do with selling paintings.

    I am certainly no art expert (far from it), but when it comes to deciding what is salable, I would think that a gallery owner should be able to tell far more from looking at your paintings than from your art resume.

    Perhaps my experience as a software engineer is coloring my judgment here. I don’t have a degree in CS (my degree is in physics) but when it comes to programming, that has made little to no difference. It’s the end result that counts and not the degree.

    Apparently, the art field is fundamentally different?

  7. Julie Chapman says:

    Larry – I’m not talking about a degree (I certainly don’t have an art degree), but some of the business basics mentioned in my original post that show your commitment to your work. It is indeed the end result that counts – but how does the gallery owner know that you are committed to continuing to paint, grow, and partner with him/her? There are loads of people out there who enjoy art, but would not necessarily make good partners with a gallery – and it’s a business relationship as well as a creative one.

    Again, take a look at Cay Lang’s book – she talks about what can go on your bio (resume) to show your credibility and commitment when you’re just starting out.

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